EntertainmentEmily Watson: "I don't get as many film role offers as I used to."

Emily Watson: "I don't get as many film role offers as I used to."

Emily Watson during the 68th Berlinale Festival
Emily Watson during the 68th Berlinale Festival
Images source: © via Getty Images | Stephane Cardinale - Corbis

9:01 AM EDT, October 22, 2023

- When I reached an age where I was not getting as many film role offers as before, and cinema began to experience a kind of decline, there was a quality revolution happening in television. Suddenly, producers realized that women over forty exist and watch TV shows - says actress Emily Watson.

Yola: I am extremely impressed with your movie "God's Creatures," which premiered this year. After watching it, I concluded that today's cinema suffers from a lack of similar productions. Such movies simply aren't made anymore, which is a great pity.

Emily Watson: It's true, especially since "God's Creatures" seems like a production from a different era. Firstly, the film was entirely recorded on tape, which is rare today. And secondly, I have the impression that contemporary cinema is dominated by simple, easily digestible stories.

It's about making the viewer able to understand what's happening on the screen, even if they are watching a movie while making sandwiches or ironing. Everything must be given outright, preferably on a silver platter. "God's creatures" are not like that.

Anna and Saela [Anna Rose Holmer and Saela Davis, directors of the film - ed.] have done a wonderful thing. They made a movie that impresses more upon second viewing than on the first. In this story, there are lots of tiny bombs that the viewer must defuse on their own while watching.

"God's Creatures" gives the impression of a production thought out from the first to the last scene. What was the work on the set like?

This was a completely new experience for me. As you say, everything was buttoned up before starting filming. Every element of this story was thoroughly thought out from many sides. If anyone had any questions or doubts, they were guaranteed that Anna and Saela would give them an answer. No one felt they were only dependent on themselves.

Everyone knew that if there was a problem, they would get advice or a hint from them, thanks to which they would be able to find a solution. They provided us with something like an emotional safety net. They had absolute power on the set, but they didn't show it. On the contrary, they behaved very modestly, very elegantly. They didn't waste words, they always addressed us on specific issues. I can't remember exactly how it sounded, but for example, when it was about decoration, they would say something like: "Could I ask you to put that chair on the opposite side of the table?".

Would you be able to refuse?

That was not a question for me, but for the team.

Excuse me?

That's how they addressed the technical team! Imagine a gang of tough, stubborn Irishmen tiptoeing around these two women. Anna and Saela could make everyone literally eating out of their hands. The respect they enjoyed was simply unbelievable. But it was precisely because of their leadership style. I had never encountered anything like it before, and now it seems to me that we need more such management in this industry.

The character you play in "God's Creatures" works in a fish processing plant. Have you ever had any experience in fish handling?

No, I had to learn this. But now I know how to prepare salmon and fillet mackerel, if anyone is curious.

You can still be heard in this year's productions in the HBO animated series "Fired on Mars". This is not your first adventure with animation. Do you enjoy recording dialogues in the studio?

When you're a mother of two teenagers, and you have a choice: either go to a shoot in Romania for two months or stop by a recording studio in London for a few days, you'd probably choose London. However, to be clear, I cited Romania merely as an example. I've had the opportunity to work in this country and I remember it very fondly.

Can you then reveal what such work looks like from the inside?

The strangest thing about recording dialogues for an animated film is that you work alone. I'll give "The Corpse Bride" as an example: I recorded all my dialogues with Johnny Depp without Johnny Depp being present. In the studio, only the sound engineer was with me. I only met with Tim Burton once, briefly.

I have no idea whether he was on location during the recording of the dialogues or perhaps somewhere in Los Angeles. For an actor, an animated film is a bizarre experience. An individual operates in a vacuum, totally devoid of contact with other cast members. I don't really like it, I feel bad in this kind of work model.

In recent years, just as often as in the cinema, you can also be seen on the small screen. What has prompted such a change?

This is just a matter of luck. When I reached an age where I wasn't getting as many movie role offers as before, and cinema was experiencing something of a decline, there happened to be a quality revolution in television. Producers suddenly realized that women in their forties exist and watch TV shows. And they also like sex and stuff like that. I'm glad this renaissance of television happened just then. It benefited me greatly, and I was able to appear in several interesting productions.

Among them, "Chernobyl" seems to stand out the most. This series has made a career around the world.

I had to thoroughly educate myself for the role in this series. After all, I played a nuclear physicist. I once appeared in a series about Einstein [referring to the series "Genius" - ed.] and tried to understand what's the deal with the theory of relativity. All that knowledge stayed in my head for about twenty seconds.

"Chernobyl" also required some training, but what I remember most is that when I first picked up the script, I had the impression that it was a brilliantly written thriller. This text was simply excellent to read, I couldn't put it down. Craig Mazin [producer and screenwriter of "Chernobyl" - editor] has a brilliant mind.

You mentioned that at some point the film proposals slowed down. How was it in the beginning? What made you decide to become an actress?

At first, I thought I would become a writer, but that did not come true. In school, I used to play some small roles in theater, and likewise in college. And I didn't really know what else to do beyond that. I wanted to continue performing, I wanted to have fun.

All my friends were entering adulthood, and I did not want to, so I thought: "Okay, I'll become an actress". I spent a few years working at the Royal Shakespeare Company, mostly in roles like "second girl from the left". But I learned a lot about the profession on this occasion.

And then came the film debut in "Breaking the Waves".

Actually, Helena Bonham Carter was supposed to play the lead role, but she withdrew at the last minute. It's not surprising, as it's a demanding role; she would have had to fully expose herself in front of the camera. When the offer came to me, I had too little experience to know what I wanted and what I didn't want to play. I only knew that such an opportunity might not come again.

It was while working on this film that I learned to act. Maybe because there is never too much technical equipment with Lars [von Trier - ed.]. It is mainly the camera that works incessantly. At some point, you forget about it as if it were part of the scenery. The actor does not think about it while working, does not think about how they will come across on screen. They simply step into the role and shoot one shot after another. I really liked this sense of relaxation, of getting used to the camera. That's exactly how films should be made.

Emily Watson in Cannes in 1996.
Emily Watson in Cannes in 1996.© Licensor | 2011 Gamma-Rapho

Would you agree that "Breaking the Waves" changed your life?

The experience that truly changed my life was the premiere of a movie at Cannes. It was in 1996 - oh my, I realized that most of the journalists who come to interview me today were children then, and some were not even born! In 1996 I had no contact with the world of cinema, let alone the festival in Cannes.

I was on unemployment benefits and had never given interviews before. The producers took me to the Dior store in Paris to buy me this fantastic gown. I appeared in Cannes and just before the premiere I heard: "The director won't be coming. Lars von Trier didn't make it". So, I ascended the stairs accompanied by Stellan Skarsgård and Katrin Cartlidge, who sadly is no longer with us. And when the lights in the cinema faded, Stellan leaned over to me and whispered: "Emily, from this moment on your life will change forever". And he was right!

You've had the opportunity to work with many exceptional directors. Which one of them made the most significant impression on you?

Robert Altman. I first met him as a man, and only then as a filmmaker. As a man, he absolutely charmed me. He was a wonderful, curious four-year-old, who was 75 years old. He always swam against the current, in his own style. He named his studio Sandcastle - because according to him, making a film was like building a castle on the beach. When everything is ready, a person sits next to it with a beer in hand and watches as the waves take away the whole structure bit by bit.

He had an incredible talent for gathering fantastic people around him. Towards the end of his life, he became close friends with Paul Thomas Anderson. When shooting his last movie, they agreed that Paul would take over if Robert fell down on duty. He had undergone heart transplants, so they had to seriously consider this possibility. One Monday, he showed up on set in bad shape, as if he were about to pass away any moment. However, it turned out that he had a wild weekend, during which he got extremely high on weed.

You probably have good memories of collaborating with Paul Thomas Anderson, don't you?

Yes, he's also one of those directors who have always followed their own path. I remember that when we met for the first time to talk about "Punch-Drunk Love", he wanted to shoot a romantic comedy that would last an hour and a half, and I dreamed of a role in which I would not have to cry or die (laughter) And so it happened, that Adam [Sandler, who co-starred with the actress in the film - editor] was watching "Breaking the Waves" at his home in Beverly Hills, and I in turn was watching his comedies in London.

Do you ever have young, aspiring actresses asking you for advice?

Indeed, I usually respond that the first thing they must take care of is to develop a thick skin and at the same time not lose their innate sensitivity. This is not an easy art, especially since there is no HR department here to help in case of professional burnout. In many cases, you have to cope on your own.

It's also good to find trustworthy teachers, whom you can ask for advice if needed. And besides everything, I assume that acting is like daily washing: if you do it well and regularly, there is no need to additionally brag about it.

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